What do home buyers want?
News of current trends usually comes from the large home construction firms that build all over the country, census data and large surveys parsed by organizations such as the National Association of Home Builders, or reader responses from magazines such as Better Homes & Gardens.
I decided to try a different tack. I looked at the most popular designs from five home plan services, firms that sell house plans to both individuals and home builders, and interviewed executives at each one. The five firms were HousePlans.com, the House Designers, Southern Living, Design Basics and BuilderHousePlans.com.
There were definite trends and a clear favorite. The same design held the top spot for the second year running in three of the five firms. It has been sold in almost every state and appeals to a broad segment of the home-buying market, including families with two or three children, empty nesters and professionals, said Tammy Crosby of the House Designers.
Despite the belt-tightening times we live in, this top seller is not a “just the basics box” so often derided by critics of suburbia. In fact, the customizing details of this house make it unlikely to be offered by a high-volume production home builder. And its size, a modest 2,091 square feet, is more than 400 square feet smaller than the average home built in 2012. The message could not be clearer: Homeowners want quality over size.
The bestseller is a one-story house with a fairly compact shape and a floor plan arrangement that is similar to the other bestsellers: central common living areas that are open to each other; split bedrooms (master suite on one side of the house, secondary bedrooms on the other); outdoor living space adjacent to the main living area; and an optional “bonus room” that could be built in the attic area above the main living floor.
What differentiates the bestseller is its facade. The style, characterized by Dan Gregory of HousePlans.com as “story book Craftsman,” is not historically accurate; it is evocative and original and nothing like the traditionally styled houses that constitute most of suburbia. Still, the design strikes a powerfully nostalgic chord that clearly resonates with many homeowners.
The exterior includes highly unusual trusses on the front entry gables and the side of the garage. The building material is stone and cedar shingles. There are playful shapes (the stonework framing the garage bay window slopes outward rather than going straight down); the colors are a pleasing earth tone palette of browns and grays. The two-car garage is angled to one side, which adds to the very unusual look. The house is well proportioned and well designed.
An eye-catching facade is not enough to clinch a sale, however. Today’s home plan purchasers demand interiors that are luxurious and efficient, and David Wiggins, a Leander, Tex., architect who designed a best-selling plan, delivers both.
Wiggins’s plan includes a master suite with a sitting area, his and her closets and vanities in the master bath, which has both a soaking tub and a shower. The kitchen, breakfast nook and family room area are flooded with natural light from the large windows. The formal dining room is separated from the main living areas by a two-way fireplace.
The two secondary bedrooms on the far side of the house afford a lot of privacy to the occupants of the master suite, and there is a media room by the front entry that could be a home office or a fourth bedroom.
The rear of the home adjoins two outdoor living areas — a lanai, or covered outdoor deck or patio; and a “BBQ Porch” with a fireplace.
What did Wiggins conclude was expendable for today’s homeowners? They could live without a formal living room; two-story spaces, including a grand entry foyer with a big chandelier that is showcased through a large window over the front door; and a fourth bedroom.
Such practicality was a common thread among all the popular designs, and some of it contradicts conventional wisdom. For more than 20 years, land planners and architects have argued for side-loading garages in new home communities so that large garage doors will not dominate the streetscape. Paul Foresman of Design Basics said that his firm has found through focus group research that two-thirds of homeowners prefer the front-loading garage because they can see where they are driving and thus avoid errant toys and sports equipment, often casualties of the tight 90-degree turns required of the side loaders.
Homeowners also complained of damaging their cars — sheering off side mirrors and scraping doors and fenders — as they maneuvered their vehicles into the side-loading entry. Foresman also noted that a three-car garage is desirable for his clients, even when the house has only 1,200 or 1,300 square feet of living area.
On the interiors, Foresman said his purchasers love a “drop zone” by the garage door to contain mail, backpacks and all the other stuff that family members bring inside before these things clutter up the living areas. Another hit: tucking a pantry closet around the corner from the kitchen so that a white pantry door doesn’t mar the aesthetics of a kitchen decked out in upscale wood cabinetry.
Energy efficiency was also a priority for the home plan purchasers, the executives said. As utility costs are going up, increased insulation, better windows and more-efficient heating and air conditioning systems were being carefully scrutinized.
Katherine Salant has an architecture degree from Harvard. A native Washingtonian, she grew up in Fairfax County and now lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. If you have questions or column ideas, she can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.katherinesalant.com .